Mary was born on April 30, 1662, at St James’ Palace in London. She was the eldest daughter of James, Duke of York (the future king James II & VII) and Anne Hyde. Even though her parents had eight children, all except Mary and her younger sister Anne died at a very young age. Since king Charles II, James' brother, had no legitimate children, Mary was the second in line to the throne after her father.
Even though the Duke had converted to Catholicism, Mary and her sister were raised as Anglicans following Charles’ command. They spent most of their childhood in Richmond Palace, where they were raised by their governess. Mary was educated by private tutors and trained in dance, music, drawing and French. In 1671, her mother passed away and her father took as his second wife Mary of Modena, a Catholic who was only four years older than Mary.
When she was fifteen, Mary was betrothed against her will to Protestant Stadtholder of Holland William of Orange. Their marriage took place in 1677. Mary enjoyed great popularity among the Dutch people, and the fact that she was married to a Protestant was well-seen by the British public. Throughout her marriage, Mary suffered several miscarriages and was never able to have children, which caused her great unhappiness.
In 1685, King Charles II died and James was crowned King of England, Ireland and Scotland. However, Charles’ illegitimate son, Monmouth opposed this and led a military campaign to invade England. Monmouth was soon defeated and executed. Still, James was not very popular among the British and his controversial pro-catholic policies caused a constitutional crisis. As a result, politicians and noblemen started to support Mary and William as successors to the throne.
The tensions increased when James had a son since a Catholic heir threatened the continuity of England as a Protestant state. Thus, Mary and William were persuaded to depose King James. In November 1688, William reached Britain and issued a declaration in which he claimed that James’ son was illegitimate. Afraid of being defeated, James fled to France, where he spent the rest of his days.
Right afterwards, a convention parliament was called for to determine how to proceed. On one hand, Mary was the rightful heir but didn’t wish to be queen regnant. On the other, William wanted to reign as king and not be a mere consort to Queen Mary. To solve this matter, the Parliament passed the Declaration of Right on February 13, 1689, which declared William and Mary joint sovereigns. They were crowned together on April 11, 1689, in London.
During their reign, one of the most important constitutional documents in British History was introduced, the Bill of Rights. This limited sovereign powers, and forbade the suspension of laws passed by the parliament, enforcing acts without its consent, interfering with parliamentary elections or inflicting cruel punishments. Moreover, it confirmed the line of succession to the throne, establishing that if William or Mary died, the other would continue to reign and would be followed by their children.
From 1690 onwards, William launched several military campaigns in Ireland and Europe and was usually absent. Consequently, Mary ruled as the queen regnant. Although she refrained from interfering in political matters, she proved to be a firm ruler by ordering the arrest of her uncle, Henry Hyde, for plotting to restore James II to the throne. She even dismissed the influential John Churchill due to similar reasons. This affected her relationship with her sister Anne, who was deeply influenced by Churchill’s wife.
Death and Legacy
Mary died on November 28, 1694, when she was only 32 years old after contracting smallpox. She was buried at Westminster Abbey.
Even though Mary only reigned for five years, her reign left a long-lasting influence on the history of the British monarchy. Perhaps the most important moment of her reign was at the beginning when she and William signed the Bill of Rights. This document contributed to creating British parliamentary democracy.
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